Shop Windows to the Universe

Hands On Mineral Identification helps you to identify over 14,500 minerals! By M. Darby Dyar, Ph.D. See our DVD collection.
Scientists have discovered a new way in which ocean water circulates through deep-sea vents.
Click on image for full size
Courtesy of Zina Deretsky/National Science Foundation

Earthquakes Under Pacific Ocean Floor Reveal Unexpected Circulation System
News story originally written on January 11, 2008

The Earth has a large system of ridges along the ocean floor that play a big part in the geology of the planet. A team of seismologists (geologists who study earthquakes) has been studying a place called the East Pacific Rise, which is in the ocean floor about 565 miles southwest of Acapulco, Mexico. These scientists have made images of this area and have made some discoveries that change what they thought they knew about these ridges and vents on the ocean floor.

In the late 1970s scientists discovered a large plumbing system under the oceans called hydrothermal vents. These systems pull in cold water, heat the water, and then spit it back out from vents in the seafloor. This process brings up hot water and substances that dissolved from rocks below the ocean floor. Some rare life forms feed off this "stew" of dissolved minerals and hot water.

Scientists used to think that pressure forced the water into the vents through large faults, or cracks in the ridge. Now scientists have learned that the water moves a lot faster in and out of the vents than they had thought (maybe a billion gallons per year!). The water goes down through a large chimney that is buried under the sea floor. Then the water runs underneath the ridge through a tunnel above a hot magma chamber. Finally the water bubbles back up through vents that are further down the ridge.

They have also learned that tiny earthquakes on the ridge are created by the cold water passing through hot rocks and picking up their heat. This process shrinks the rocks and cracks them, creating small quakes. Then seawater is forced down into the new spaces made by the earthquakes. This water gets heated by the magma and rises back to the seafloor. Maya Tolstoy, a marine geologist, says this process is very similar to what happens in a pot of boiling water.

These findings could help scientists understand seafloor currents, the nutrient flows of minerals, and how heat and chemicals are cycled to the seafloor and overlying waters.

Last modified April 29, 2008 by Becca Hatheway.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Our online store includes issues of NESTA's quarterly journal, The Earth Scientist, full of classroom activities on different topics in Earth and space science, ranging from seismology, rocks and minerals, oceanography, and Earth system science to astronomy!

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Cool It! Game

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

Creatures which live in Harsh Environments

There are many types of living things that are able to live in difficult environments on Earth. The picture to the left shows an example of some of these creatures. These are tubeworms that live at the...more

What Is a Mineral?

Minerals are the building blocks of rocks. They are non-living, solid, and, like all matter, are made of atoms of elements. There are many different types of minerals and each type is made of particular...more

Magma

If you could travel to the center of the Earth, you would find that it gets hotter and hotter as you travel deeper. The heat is naturally produced when radioactive elements break apart. Within the Earth’s...more

Triggers of Volcanic Eruptions in Oregon's Mount Hood Investigated

Scientists have learned that Mount Hood, Oregon's tallest mountain, has erupted in the past due to the mixing of two different types of magma. "The data will help give us a better road map to what a future...more

Oldest Earth Mantle Reservoir Discovered

The Earth's mantle is a rocky, solid shell that is between the Earth's crust and the outer core, and makes up about 84 percent of the Earth's volume. The mantle is made up of many distinct portions or...more

It’s Not Your Fault – A Typical Fault, Geologically Speaking, That Is

Some geologic faults that appear strong and stable, slip and slide like weak faults, causing earthquakes. Scientists have been looking at one of these faults in a new way to figure out why. In theory,...more

Lower Solar Activity Linked to Changes in Sun's Conveyor Belt

The sun goes through cycles that last approximately 11 years. These solar cycle include phases with more magnetic activity, sunspots, and solar flares. They also include phases with less activity. The...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA